Bullhorn or Tin Can Telephone?

Sometimes social media is like the people who stand in public parks with a soap box and a bull horn.

They shout about religion, animal cruelty, the wage gap, miracle cures, or current affairs. For the most part, the general public walks right on by, dismissing the speakers as crazy or ignoring them altogether. Occasionally a soap-boxer gets a response from a passerby, but it’s often heckling or a hand gesture. It is a rare person who has an epiphany and is moved to action after hearing a soap box message from a bullhorn.

Many organizations use social media like a bullhorn without ever considering whether their audience cares about their message or if anyone is even listening. They’re not engaging any one, making connections, or inciting action. They’re shouting, and it’s a one-way conversation.

Connectivity is a Two-Way Street

Perhaps a better method for delivery would be the tin can telephone. You know, the one created by connecting two cans with a piece of string. In order for a tin can telephone to work, the listener must be a willing participant. He has to pick up the can, put it up to his ear, and listen intently. The speaker must whisper a message and wait to hear a response. It’s a personal connection between two people, a two-way exchange of conversation.

Social media can often be a shouting match that drowns out all voices—even the interesting, reasonable ones. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in what we want to tell our base that we sometimes forget to stop and ask them what they would like to hear.

Ask yourself whether your organization is shouting or having a conversation. If nobody is talking back—or if you’re getting a lot of heckling and hand gestures—it might be time to reevaluate your social media strategy. Without listeners around your campfire, your water cooler, or your conference table, your story simply can’t be effective.

Ready to whisper into the tin can telephone? You might be surprised at who is ready to connect on the other end and what they would like you to know in return.

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McDonald's Serves Up Stories

McDonald’s turned some heads recently with the release of its “Signs” commercial. In just one minute, this emotional piece of sadvertising engages viewers with hints of tragedy, triumph, and human connectivity—all set to the moving musical ballad “Carry On,” sung by a choir of young people.

At the end, viewers are encouraged to visit to “See the stories behind the signs.” This call to action extends the commercial’s depth by encouraging viewers to get even more connected to the cities, people, and events highlighted in the commercial. It extends the commercial’s reach onto social media (and, really, to infinity and beyond) by posting the stories on tumblr, where they are instantly shareable. Visitors to the tumblr site are rewarded with three additional commercials, each with a different theme.

Where’s the Beef?

It’s worth noting that there is no mention of food whatsoever in any of the commercials. These spots focus on the human side of Mc Donald’s at a very specific, local level.

McDonald’s has been in the news a lot lately—for both “pink slime” allegations and the low wages of its workers. This storytelling strategy aims to combat these negative perceptions by portraying McDonald’s as a bunch of local owners who care for their communities, not a soulless corporation out for profits.

A Mixed Bag

The campaign was met with mixed reviews. Critics doubted its sincerity. Other viewers were moved by the gesture that, while uncharacteristic of previous McDonald’s branding, seemed authentic and inspiring. The T.V. spot certainly serves as an excellent example of how a company can put storytelling to work toward achieving a specific outcome. In McDonald’s case it might be a positive public perception. For your organization it might attracting new members, inspiring existing members, or influencing more lives.

How might you emphasize the human side of your organization? Harness the power of storytelling to engage and inspire your membership and achieve your goals.

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In a sense, everyone connected to your organization is part of your marketing department.

The term “brand ambassador” is probably an overused buzzword these days, but the idea behind it is sound. Each person at your organization represents part of your story. What they say, what they do, even what they wear say something about your organization’s service, products, and culture. (Consider blue-jean clad Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos).

Each promotion you create is also part of your story. Good branding presents a unified face to the world using a unique but consistent tone of voice, original images, one-of-a-kind events, and meaningful personal interactions.

Your members, too, tell pieces of your story—in tweets, testimonials, conversations, and referrals. This storymaking is as critical to your brand’s success as the stories you craft and promote.

This all adds up to a case for authenticity. No matter who encounters your organization or where they are in the decision-making process, they get a bite sized portion of your true authentic self.

Marketer Seth Godin explains his in book All Marketers are Liars, “The problem with first impressions isn’t that they’re not important…but that we have no idea at all when that first impression is going to occur. Not the first contact, but the first impression. That’s why authenticity matters.”

How often have you left a conference with a stack of business cards and very little memory about who’s who? When it comes time to follow up on those leads, you won’t remember exactly what was said at first contact. By establishing a consistent, authentic story, you won’t have to worry that the values you promoted at the show are the same ones your organization can stand behind.

Not only is authenticity effective at attracting your tribe members to you. It’s easy. Your organization has too many moving parts to maintain various fronts for different audiences at different points of contact. Being authentic at all times ensures the consistently right impression with little effort from you.

Remember, it’s a rare company that changes anybody’s mind. Your goal is to find your tribe, the people whose worldview suggests they will already believe what you’re saying. These people are just waiting to connect with you and be inspired. And they can’t do that unless you are authentic and vulnerable at all times.

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Fighting the Gut Instinct

People go with their gut. We make decisions, even big ones, in a matter of seconds mostly based on emotion and not facts or logic. Some studies suggest this is a leftover from our early days as hunter-gatherers, when we needed to make quick decisions to stay alive. (The jury is still out on whether we make good snap decisions more often than bad ones.)

People are also stubborn. We rarely change our minds once we’ve made a decision. Rather than seeking a well-rounded approach to the situation, we tend to gravitate toward people and information that reaffirm our decisions and complement our worldview.

How to Market to People Whose Minds are Made Up

This makes our job as effective marketers pretty tough. If people have already made up their minds and they’re not prone to changing them, why do we bother continuously promoting ourselves?

First, you simply don’t know when people might encounter your brand. Your next ad or email could be the catalyst for a prospect’s snap decision to join your organization.

Second, you can’t predict which aspects of your story will resonate with your audience’s worldview. When you present a set of ideas that mesh with the decisions your base has already made, you reaffirm their choices and they will naturally gravitate to your organization. Your prospect will tell herself a story about your organization and sell it to herself with little effort on your part.

A Case for Authenticity

It’s worth noting that you can’t simply tell your audience what they want to hear. If a what you offer doesn’t actually help a member after she decides to join, she’s not likely to recommend your organization to anyone (she might even say something negative). She’s probably not going to renew her membership next year. And she’s not going to spout any valuable word-of-mouth storymaking.

Your only course of action, then, is to be your true, authentic self. Tell your story at every turn to attract new prospects and to inspire current members who believe in your organization because it resonates with their worldview and gut instincts.

As they say, it’s easier to sell salad dressing to someone who already eats salad. Your job isn’t to convince people, it’s to find those who are already convinced and let them know you’re there.

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7 Clues to Business Narrative

So you want to start using storytelling to inspire your base and your team. Now what? How do you get started? Paul Smith, author of Lead with a Story: A guide to crafting business narratives that captivate, convince, and inspire, suggests seven strategies for crafting a good story.

1. Provide context.

Clue in your audience as to the conditions surrounding your story. If a major industry change sparked a new idea, don’t forget to tell your members about that change. Context is a lens through which people will view your tale.

2. Use figures of speech.

Metaphors and analogies help illustrate your story because people are so familiar with them. For example, you might mention the tradeshow floor was buzzing like a beehive. That’s more interesting and engaging than simply stating that it was busy.

3. Add emotion.

Smith suggests appealing to emotion, and we couldn’t agree more. The emotional center of the brain is responsible for 90% of our decision making. A good marketer simply can’t ignore emotions.

4. Be concrete.

Add specific details to your stories and skip the corporate jargon. A conversational tone with real world details—not abstractions—will forge a connection with your audience.

5. Include a surprise.

Smith notes recent research that suggests a surprise could make your story more memorable. Surprises trigger the release of adrenaline in the brain, which heightens memory formation.

6. Use a narrative style appropriate for business.

Keep it professional and concise. Smith suggests a story that’s 3 to 5 minutes long.

7. Be interactive.

The only thing better than a story that’s so good your audience feels like they’re a part of it is a story your audience is actually a part of. (Remember Steve Jobs’ prank call?) Involve your audience in whole or in part for an even greater impact.

Storytelling in business is a little different than the stories you might tell your kids at bedtime, but with a little effort, they’re every bit as interesting, engaging, and inspiring.

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